Sunday, 18 February 2018
Collecting insects on SSSI – we need a practical licensing solution
A thread on the NFBR Facebook group posted yesterday highlighted one of the big problems for the most active recorders of taxonomically challenging insects. If ‘collecting’ is listed on ‘Operations Likely to Damage’ for a particular SSSI, it could be construed that collecting should not be consented. Most Natural England (NE) staff interpret this sensibly and recognise that without the use of lethal methods there will be no data on any but the most obvious insects. And, it is far better to know what is on a site than to work in ignorance. Indeed, Natural England itself commissions consultant entomologists to survey using lethal methods as part of its site monitoring programme. So, where is the difference between sending in a consultant and allowing a national or regional specialist to visit and use lethal methods? Especially so if they are a recording scheme organiser and make a significant contribution to our knowledge of taxonomically difficult invertebrates!
There is no straightforward solution unless there are clear policies concerning the use of unpaid specialists in data-gathering. I’m not aware that Natural England has any such policies, and if it did it would not be allowed to have them because Government says NE has no policy-making role! So, NE is stuck in the middle too – it needs a policy but cannot develop one without contravening Government limits on its role! In the end, that means that staff have to come up with their own interpretations. As in all walks of life there are some who will be relaxed/enlightened, and others who will take a very narrow interpretation or indeed may be hostile on personal grounds. In the end, that alienates the very people NE needs to provide the data that underpin conservation management (and Government policy changes). No data means no informed policy, means no enlightened or specialist conservation.
Now, clearly, NE want data. They have been strong supporters of the NFBR and in particular the National Biodiversity Network (NBN). Recently they have been less keen on Local Environmental Records Centres (LERCS) and have cut funding for them. However, their central tenet seems to be that they want as much data as possible and will support initiatives to improve data accessibility. So, denying a taxonomic specialist permission to collect is counter-intuitive. It won’t improve data availability and may actually put some specialists off visiting those parts of the country where permission is difficult to obtain.
The problem for individual recorders is that there is no single umbrella body to enter into discussions with NE. What about the likes of the Royal Entomological Society, British Entomological and Natural History Society, Dipterists Forum, BWARS etc? Well, maybe, but no one body represents taxonomic diversity and I’m not sure that any is in a position to take the initiative. That must mean that there is an obvious role for the NFBR or for the NBN. Indeed, it seems essential that one or other engages with NE.
The question then arises: what should a consent or licence look like?
As I understand the situation, it is the landowner’s responsibility to ensure that conditions placed on SSSI management are adhered to. So, if collecting insects/invertebrates/other organisms is listed as an Operation Likely to Damage, the landowner must seek NE consent. In practice this system often leads to the entomologist going directly to NE to seek consent, but that can be a tortuous and sometimes difficult process – as was discussed in the NFBR post. Either way, there are a number of public and voluntary organisations that might benefit from establishing a concordat and an overarching consent (licencing) process.
If NE and others want data, they need to encourage specialists to gather it. If they place obstacles in the way of such specialists, they will hinder data collection and the data will be increasingly skewed towards those taxa that can be identified without resort to lethal methods. Would that matter? Well that depends upon your point of view, but bearing in mind that in most of the bigger Orders a relatively small proportion of species can be identified in the field, we could descend into a dark age of knowledge about some of our most sensitive bellwethers of environmental change! That would suit the agrichemical industry and those who would like to greater industrialise agriculture. It would also assist developers who want to destroy wildlife sites. I firmly believe that without taxonomic specialists who use lethal methods, invertebrate conservation will be working one hand tied behind its back and the knuckles broken on the other hand.
So, is it beyond the wit of man to come up with a practical system to consent visits by taxonomic specialists to SSSI? Consent to collect should not equate to ‘consent to access’ unless land is ‘public open space’. But, surely, the bearer of such a consent could be provided with sufficient freedom to minimise the paper trails and bureaucracy that can severely limit a valuable (free) source of data.
If such a system was in place, it might be necessary to have a system for checking the credentials of new recruits. Old-timers like me are well-known enough but if you are a relative novice how can you persuade the consenting organisation that you are bona-fide? Perhaps one way would be to limit such consents to full members of recognised organisations – RES, BENHS, DF, BWARS, LNU, YNU, LNHS etc.? In so-doing that might also provide some impetus for people to actually join such organisations and see them as relevant to their interests! In my vision, participating organisations would have blanket consent to allow 'collecting', whilst a consent (with conditions) could be given to bone-fide applicants that would allow them to collect on particular land-holdings. In the end an awful lot of bureaucracy could be avoided.